Curbs on media and freedom of expression not the way forward

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Print and broadcast media in Pakistan find themselves the target of a wide-ranging crackdown, with the country’s oldest newspaper, Dawn, the latest notable victim. The Dawn media group’s coverage is known for its boldness and impartiality, but recently the Dawn newspaper found itself at the center of a row when it published a controversial statement by ex-prime minister Nawaz Sharif.

Also targeted in the crackdown is Dawn group’s TV news channel, which has been forced off the air in many areas around the country. In others it has forced onto the margins of cable TV.

Prior to Dawn being targeted, Geo media group had its television station taken down because of a perceived anti-establishment bias. A deal was later struck only when Geo agreed to redirect its editorial focus in a way that met approval from the authorities.

Newspapers and TV companies throughout Pakistan are now subject to censorship measures imposed without warning.  This in turn prompts media self-censorship, and journalists complain of an inability to cover stories with any degree of objectivity. Whether the Dawn media group will withstand or bow to the pressure remains of vital concern to the industry.

TV news channels’ current-affairs slots are occupied mostly by retired army officer “defense analysts” who pay little heed to defense or police matters and generally concentrate on politics, with their commentaries often heavily pro-establishment.

While the media battle censorship, the new darling of the establishment, Imran Khan, is projected as a Messiah by the so-called defense analysts and by right-wing anchors and political analysts.

Many analysts and journalists are turning to social media, writing blogs and articles on current-affairs websites. But it is feared that social media will also soon face the same curbs and censorship as mainstream media currently endure

As a consequence, many analysts and journalists are turning to social media, writing blogs and articles on current-affairs websites. But it is feared that social media will also soon face the same curbs and censorship as mainstream media currently endure.

It is almost as if everyone knows what is coming next in a script already written by invisible forces, but no one is ready to speak about it publicly.

Media censorship in Pakistan is a matter of routine, and every now and then media outlets are pressured to toe the guidelines of the invisible forces. Being a journalist on the opposite side of the narrative of the political and defense elite means putting your life at risk. You are termed a traitor or a blasphemer, and sometimes accused of acting on a foreign agenda.

Even when Pakistani journalists and writers practice self-censorship, they are still subjected to threats from extremists and  invisible authoritarian forces.

It remains a sad state of affairs that the authorities in Pakistan have not learned from past mistakes, meaning that media groups and journalists who do not toe the state-defined line are labeled traitors or  blasphemers. This leaves very little space for debate of important issues facing society and it grants free rein to faith merchants and the political and defense elite, who flourish on the narratives that benefit them.

For example, it is considered high risk to cover blasphemy laws that result in the marginalization of Pakistan’s Christian and Ahmadi communities. Likewise, it is considered treasonable to question the government’s political and defense-related policies.

These curbs have resulted in a society that lives in a delusional state and that is not ready to address the nation’s social and political problems. An absence of healthy intellectual debate on issues pertaining to extremism and the narrative of a security state instead of a social state has created an inertia in society, and during the last few decades we Pakistanis have been traveling in circles trying to convince ourselves that we are moving forward.

While the Dawn awaits a conclusion and looks forward to a possible rapprochement with the authorities, other Pakistani media channels are practicing self-censorship. This has created an atmosphere of fear in the journalistic community, as self-appointed patriots and journalists with claims to true Muslim status grab the moral high ground.

Those with opposing views are either declared traitors or blasphemers, or accused of taking bribes from politicians and foreign powers. And so only the authoritarian status quo prevails, as it has done for decades. For at least 70 years the country’s political and defense elite and religious forces have pushed Pakistan to the verge of global isolation, and helped create a society incapable of critical thinking.

Politicians, too, must take blame. No single political party in the country’s history actually tackled the dire need for social and structural reforms. Political forces exist only to grab and maintain power while taking policy directives from the establishment, or aligning themselves with the faith merchants in order to grab right-wing votes.

The void this creates is filled by journalists, intellectuals or human- and social-rights activists, who quickly find themselves declared traitors or blasphemers. Well-meaning reformists are regularly accused of presenting threats to national security or to religion. Since the 1950s the story has been the same, with only the faces changing. Dissenters and callers for social or political reform are not to blame. The establishment elite must accept that it is part of the problem.

One wonders how the restriction of media and freedom of expression is meant to take the nation forward. Propaganda is a tool of modern warfare, used against the enemy to disrupt its intellectual, social and political growth. But what we see in Pakistan today is propaganda being used by the powerful establishment and political elite to retain the status quo, even at the cost of breeding extremism and hatred toward the developed world.

It is high time that we started debating and addressing the flaws in the political and social fabric of our society. With a general election only two months away, increased curbs on freedom of expression are a matter of great concern. When the national media is subject to authoritarian control and/or extensive self-censorship, the credibility of our elections will always be open to serious concerns and doubts.

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